Do you remember a time when Sunderland teams would walk down the tunnel, either at Roker Park or at the Stadium of Light, with their heads up, their chests puffed out, and a look of utter determination on their faces?
It was a time when we could boast players who were physically robust, mentally unbreakable, and utterly committed to being part of a winning side.
They would enter the field of play, would not take a backward step and set the tone. ’This is our stadium’, you could almost hear them saying, ‘and if you want to leave with the spoils of victory, you’re going to have to outgun us over ninety minutes, and we won’t make it easy for you’.
Whether under the stewardship of Peter Reid in the mid-to-late 1990s, or Mick McCarthy and Roy Keane during the 2004/2005 and 2006/2007 promotion seasons respectively, the effect was the same: the players believed, the crowd believed in them, and it made for a potent combination.
The departure of Kevin Ball, a matter of days before Saturday’s dismal defeat to MK Dons (not great timing, from a PR perspective), brought that ideal back into sharp focus.
Despite having no prior connections to Sunderland before his arrival, Ball left Wearside as a Sunderland icon, a man who embraced, embodied, and epitomised what it was to wear the red and white, to play for a rabid fanbase, and to give them memories that would last a lifetime. He always carried his share of the burden, led the team impeccably, and never shied away from fronting up even in difficult times (take note, Corry Evans).
The class of 2021/2022 are failing this particular test, and failing it dismally, as an automatic promotion challenge has turned into a frantic scrap for the playoffs.
Where once there was belief, there is apathy, and the positive, exciting style of play we exhibited during the early months of the season has morphed into something scrappy, nervy, and unenjoyable to watch.
In possession, there is no conviction to our play, and not a single player appears to resemble the totemic figure that we so desperately need.
When nervous glances are exchanged between players, and arms are thrown up in frustration, you know there is a major on-field problem and that nobody is taking charge, and that is happening on a weekly basis.
Playing in front of a packed Stadium of Light crowd, every member of which would exchange places with the players in a heartbeat, should be a privilege and something to be embraced.
For some of these players, and at the risk of sounding conceited, ours will be the biggest club they ever play for, and every second spent playing for Sunderland, both home and away, should be cherished.
Ultimately, the players have to be self-motivated, and if walking down the tunnel into the SOL does not have that effect, something has gone badly wrong.
They are living the dreams of thousands, and it should never be taken for granted.
At the moment, too many of them are allowing the minutes and the matches to slide by, and their chances of playing their part in a successful season to diminish.
When Alex Neil was appointed, many expressed a view that he would ‘put a rocket’ up the players and whip them back into shape. Frankly, he could do far worse than providing them with a crash-course in Sunderland’s recent history, and providing examples of players who perhaps lacked technical talent, but had the heart for the fight.
In terms of talent, this team is well-stocked.
We have an abundance of skilful players who, on their day, can create major problems for opposition defenders, and ca on excite the crowd. It is only by aligning that to the right mentality and a willingness to empty the tank during every game, however, that things will be turned around.
Against Sheffield Wednesday last weekend, Rotherham showed the kind of qualities that automatic promotion-winning teams always possess.
A take-no-nonsense attitude, a rampant desire to win, and an efficiency over the ninety minutes that was impressive to see.
No drama, just an approach of ‘get in, get out, and don’t mess about’. Contrast that with Sunderland, and it is easy to see why our season is in danger of fizzling out.
It is often when things take a turn for the worse that you discover what your players are truly made of. At the moment, a soft underbelly and a fragile mentality have been brutally exposed. The wounds can be certainly repaired, hopefully starting against Burton, but right now, hope is desperately hard to find.